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3 Reasons Why Power Doesn’t Matter in the Trinity

April 14, 2015

Writing about the Trinity is not an easy subject. Actually, it’s one of the most controversial topics you could ever write about.  Since the first century AD, most of the splits, heresies, and disputes within the church had to do in some way with the Trinity.

This is especially true as it concerns Christology (the field of study dealing with the nature and person of Jesus in relation to the other members of the Trinity: God the Father and the Holy Spirit).

I’m not going to try to solve over 2000 years of church disputes in fewer than 2000 words.
What I am going to do is to share with you three reasons why I believe power doesn’t matter in the Trinity (but why it matters to us today):

1. God is Love

 Yes, I know it’s a cliche. One of the verses in Scripture that best reveals the fundamental nature of God is found in 1 John 4:8:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – NASV

Sure, you hear “God is love” all the time but, what does that actually mean? One place to start is here: How do we express and experience love as people? In the English language, we sadly have only one word for love. So we can say we love pizza, and also love our spouse!  We love both, but not in the same way (one hopes).

Tim Keller, in his fantastic book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, takes this basic concept of love and draws out an important point:

“If God were impersonal, as Eastern religions teach, then love- something that can happen only between two or more persons- would be an illusion. We can go further and say that even if God were only unipersonal, then love would not have appeared until after God began to create human beings. That would mean God was more fundamentally power than he was love. Love would not be as important as power.” [p. 50-Emphasis added]

If before Creation God was a single being, alone in the universe with nothing else to love (yet Himself was still defined as love), who would He love if not Himself? Logically, he would have needed to create other beings in order to experience the kind of love that we understand today (again, defined as something that can happen only between two or more persons).

All of this in reality would be misplaced narcissism.

“Love” in this case would be a means to an end, for others to love him back as much as he loves himself.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, however, teaches that there is one God in three persons who have known and loved one another before the dawn of time. It means that God has always had within himself a perfect, equal, and satisfying relationship. As Keller writes:

“God is, therefore, infinitely, profoundly happy filled with perfect joy— not some abstract tranquility but the fierce happiness of dynamic loving relationships.” [p. 67]

This leads me to my second point:

2. Because God is Love, He is primarily other-focused.

 Keller, this time citing Jonathan Edwards, a very famous pastor, and theologian, shared this nugget:

 Edwards argued in a Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, that the only reason God would have had for creating us was not to get the cosmic love of joy and relationship (because he already had that) but to share it. Edwards shows how it is completely consistent for a triune God- who is “other– oriented” in his very core, who seeks glory only to give it to others– to communicate happiness and delight in his own divine perfections and beauty in others. [68]

In this world, love is the primary driving agent and power is the means to share the love with others. All members of the Godhead work together with the goal of love in mind.

Some people argue that the Trinity has an intrinsic hierarchy within itself with the Son eternally subordinated to the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally subordinated to them both.

However, even the discussion of who is “top dog” within the Trinity creates two problems:

A. It undermines the very principle of self-sacrificial love.  I have never seen a healthy relationship among friends or romantic partners where someone has to pull rank in order for there to be a final agreement. In contrast, the New Testament command is for both husbands and wives to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). It is important here not to confuse the role with the position. The idea that the members of the Godhead are equal does not do away with the function or role of each member; it does however, mean that they work as equals.

B. Practice comes from belief. Consider the fact that after the early church decided who within the Trinity had the most power, it would be a few short centuries before the church started asking who in the church had the most power… and that eventually led to the Papacy.

Again, the mutually self-sacrificial nature inherent in a loving, healthy relationship seems strangely out of place in a discussion of which members of the Godhead are “eternally subordinated” to the others.

Discussions of hierarchy in the Trinity are working from a paradigm of power rather than love.

Because self-sacrificial love is the basis of God’s law and character as opposed to power, this is why free will (and, by extension, evil) can exist.  If God is our Creator and loves us, free will must necessarily be given to creation in order to allow for the freedom to reciprocate or reject that love.

You can’t force someone to love you. If you say you love them and use any kind of force, that’s closer to rape, not love.

It would also be unfair to punish someone eternally for an individual’s rejection of that love, but that’s another point altogether.

Really though, this idea of love should transform our view of the world, outreach, evangelism, and mission.

Christians, called to reflect God’s character in this world, are not called to serve others with the ulterior motive of receiving something from them in return (money, conversion, baptism, etc.). We are called to love others simply because of love’s sake. Period.

3. Distorted views of God happen when we minimize or overemphasize the authority God intrinsically possesses.

There are two ditches that people can find themselves in when looking at God’s balance of power and love. There is no doubt that the Bible speaks over and over again about the power that God possesses within himself. Actually, most of the last half of the book of Job is God reminding everyone that he does have unimaginable power and experience.

However, when we overemphasize power over love or vice-versa, we open the door to either a view of God that sees him as a totalitarian, legalistic dictator or nothing more than a senile grandfather figure who has general goodwill upon everybody.

While it would seem as though the Bible sometime  paints a picture of God as fierce deity in some ares and a doting parent in others, when people insist on sticking to one picture, it starts to mess with the true picture of God’s character. Consider what Keller says about this as it relates to prayer:

Left to ourselves, our hearts will tend to create a god who doesn’t exist. People from Western cultures want a God who is loving and forgiving but not holy and transcendent. Studies of the spiritual lives of young adults in Western countries reveal that their prayers, therefore, are generally devoid of both repentance and the joy of being forgiven. Without prayer that answers to the God of the Bible, we may be responding not to the real God, but to what we wish God and life to be like. [p. 62]

Eugene Peterson said it like this in his book Answering God:

 Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us…there is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, reveled through Israel and Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. In the first, we indulge our appetite for religious fulfillment; in the second we practice obedient faith. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. [p. 5-6]

All this aside, at the end of the day, information about who God is is just not enough. Just like it is true that our biological fathers may not always be father figures in our lives, having the knowledge that God is love and that he loves us is a moot point if that’s not relevant to our actual relationship with him.

In the Trinity, power is not the ultimate currency… love is, and God wants us to experience that love today.

  • Jason Smith

    Brother Nelson Fernandez​,

    I feel obliged to respond to a few points in your article “3 Reasons Why Power Doesn’t Matter in the Trinity”

    The first is a response to the philosophical argument that says that “if God were only unipersonal, then love would not have appeared until after God began to created human beings. That would mean God was more fundamentally power than he was love.” The problem with this argument is that it limits God’s capabilities within the dimension of time. It says that He can only love someone only after He has made them. Contrary to this the Scripture speaks of God knowing Jeremiah before He actually formed Him (Jer 1:5). If intimate knowledge of an individual existed in the mind of God before He actually formed him then wouldn’t love also be there? If Scripture allows for one then we must also allow for the other unless we want to argue that although God knew Jeremiah before He actually made Him He did not love him until after He actually birthed him. I do not want to press this argument too strongly but philosophical arguments about the nature of God, based on what we perceive as necessary in order for love to exist, might just be circular reasoning because of an erroneous starting point. God does not need the actual being to be existent in order to love him or her because they already exist as a part of His will. They are already as good as existent so to speak. This is how the dead, even though they are actually dead right now, are spoken of as living unto Him (Luke 20:38). And I believe it is also how He gave us grace in His Son “before times eternal” [Gr: πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων] (2 Tim 1:9). From all eternity God has known and loved all and, just here, we are now getting awfully close to the light unto which no man can approach. This is the territory of the Father, Son and Spirit alone. We are dealing with a God who operates in time in terms of His dealings with us yet Who also transcends it. Before I move on though I would also like note that the same thing could also be true if the Son of God was literally begotten of the Father’s substance before all time [Gr: παντὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος] (See Jude 1:25 GNT). Suffice it to say that our early Adventist pioneers all believed that view and yet saw no dichotomy between it and God’s express character being love. Today we argue, in part, against a pre-incarnate begotten Son based on a philosophical assumption and not express Biblical revelation.

    The second point is that those who argue for an “intrinsic hierarchy” within the Godhead do so based on Biblical revelation. The Scripture speaks of “the head of Christ” being “God [the Father]” (1 Cor 11:3) and even though the Son has returned to His original glory which He had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5; Heb 2:9) this does not prevent Him from being subject to the Father in eternity future after He returns the world to loyalty to Him (1 Cor 15:27, 28). What is this if not the Son returning to His original role? If the Son’s sharing full glory with the Father does not prohibit Him from being subject in the future then why should we think that this was not the order in eternity past? Has anything else but a submissive Son been revealed to men or angels? John Peters astutely notes that “From the viewpoint of the first created beings, the submissive role of the Son appeared to be inherent in the nature of the Son. To the angelic host the submission of the Son of God to the Father appeared to place the Son on a level perhaps only a little higher than themselves. If we accept the inspired nature of the writings of Ellen G. White, the angelic host correctly perceived the submission of the Son, but the ontological equality of the Son with the Father was unclear to them” (Peters-Response to Rodriguez’ critique on headship: the Trinity and Genesis 1-3). I would add to this a few points from the servant of the Lord. In speaking of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness she tells us that “He was fully aware of the glory He had with the Father before the world was. But THEN He willingly submitted to the Divine will, and He was unchanged now” (BEcho July 23, 1900). And again when the Son was to exercise Divine power in creating this world “He would not seek power of exhalation for Himself contrary to God’s plan, but would exalt the Father’s glory and execute His purposes of beneficence and love” (PP 36.2). In other words what we are seeing here is a pre-incarnate Son who was willingly submissive to the headship of His Father!

    The third point is that you wrote of never seeing “a healthy relationship among friends or romantic partners where someone has to pull rank in order for there to be a final agreement. In contrast, the New Testament command is for both husbands and wives to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).” Let me ask you a question brother Nelson. If Adam would have told Eve to drop the fruit and seek God for forgiveness instead of following her into transgression would that have been the manifestation of an healthy relationship or unhealthy relationship? Surely the answer is healthy! The reality here is that no one should have “to pull rank” but this is not because there is no rank but rather because in “healthy relationships” people happily submit to those in authority above them. I will comment more on this in terms of husband and wife in the paragraph below. For now though I would note that this (willing submission to the one above) is the way it was in heaven before sin entered. The “mild, loving authority” of “the Son of God” “had not heretofore been questioned; and…He had given no commands but what it was joy for the heavenly host to execute” (ST Jan 9, 1879). There was clearly rank back then between Christ and the angels and even between the highest orders of angels and lesser ones but no one opposed it. Thus “when Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of” (TMOB 109). My point here is that sin is what makes rank odious to created beings, without the sin problem there is no problem. Thus even God Himself “pulled rank” when it came to establishing the place of His Son due to sin. He had a meeting for that express purpose and then satan manipulated that event by saying that a leader had been set over the angels even though that was the way it always had been. Yet we know that “There had been no change in the position or authority of Christ. Lucifer’s envy and misrepresentation and his claims to equality with Christ had made necessary a statement of the true position of the Son of God; but this had been the same from the beginning. Many of the angels were, however, blinded by Lucifer’s deceptions.” (PP pg 38). Are not many also being blinded by satan today about the roles of men and women which have also been from the beginning?

    Also the argument that the NT command is for husbands and wives to submit to one another is a misreading. The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians telling them to submit themselves to one another in the fear of the God (Eph 5:21). Most people look at that verse in isolation and use it as the basis for argument that husband and wives must submit to one another but the continuing context shows us exactly what Paul means. He speaks of wives submitting to and reverencing their husbands (vs 21-24, 33), he speaks of children obeying their parents (Eph 6:1-3) and finally servants obeying their masters (6:5-8). And in each one of these instances he appeals to the one unto whom the submission is to be shown not to use the authority of their position in an ungodly manner. Husbands (unto whom the wife is to submit) are to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25-33), fathers (the highest authority in the family unit unto whom the children submit) do not provoke the children to wrath but nurture and admonish them (Eph 6:4) and masters (unto whom the sevants submit) must forbear threatening (Eph 6:9). The point here is that these are the examples of submission that the Ephesians were supposed to show. I have never heard anyone argue that there is no functional distinction between parents/children or servants/masters. It is only in the context of discussions of the role of men and women in the church that the headship of man has become obscured. Again though sister White confirms it for us. She wrote: “We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head.” (6MR 126). This advice is perfectly compatible with her writings elsewhere we she wrote of woman occupying the position of God’s original design “as her husband’s equal” (AH 231.1). Now I am not trying to say that husbands should never yield their judgment ( God forbid!) they should to that oftentimes But what I am saying is that they are the authority figure in the home (See 1 Cor 11:3). One of the inherent problems I see in our theology today is that headship/submission is viewed as a result of sin and we seem to think it incompatible with a sinless relationship but, as our example with Christ before sin shows, this is not the case. And even a careful reading of Genesis 2 and 3 (along with Paul’s inspired commentary on it) reveals the pre-fall headship of Adam.

    The fourth point has to do with your statement that “practice comes from belief.” I would note that inspiration presents God the Father as being the Head of His Son. In fact, if we accept Mrs. White as an inspired author then we must admit that when the great controversy first arose in heaven it was the Father’s Word which was the final authoritative statement on the matter! The chain of command flowed from the Father to the Son to the angels and it was this order that Lucifer sought to change and from which he eventually departed. Now the fact that massive abuses happened (and still do happen) within Christendom, eventually resulting in the papal power, does not negate the fact that God actually has a structure of governance which we are supposed to follow. Nor are these abuses a license for us to undermine or change it. Jesus Christ Himself acknowledged the structure of church governance in His day even though it too was incredibly corrupt. He said that the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat and therefore were to be obeyed but their hypocritical works were not to be followed (Matt 23:2,3). For more on this subject I would like for you to read the following link:

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/jason-smith/restructuring-the-government-of-god-part-1/10152627338897124

    Consequently I disagree with your assertion that “the mutually self-sacrificial nature inherent in loving, health relationships seems strangely out of place” if the members of the Godhead function in headship/submission roles. In such a system (headship/submission) it rested ultimately with the Father whether to yield up His Son to save guilty man or to let him perish. Thus the Son would not make a move to save man on His own authority but would get the Father’s permission first before doing so. And since the Father loves the Son as much as He loves Himself then it would be a struggle for the Father (a denial of His own desire to protect His Son from anything horrible) to let His dearly beloved Son go through with it. Here we see mutual submission (the Father eventually acquiesces to the Son’s request) operating within the headship/submission framework (the Father’s word must be given first). Yet because the Father also loves His creations as much as Himself He would actually love the Son more because of His willingness to save us! Both of these ideas are confined to us in the Spirit of prophecy:

    “He (the Son) then made known to the angelic choir that a way of escape had been made for lost man; that He had been pleading with His Father,and had obtained permission to give His own life as a ransom for the race, to bear their sins, and take the sentence of death upon Himself,… Said the angel, “Think ye that the Father yielded up His dearly beloved Son without a struggle? No, no.” It was even a struggle with the God of heaven, whether to let guilty man perish, or to give His darling Son to die for them….{EW 126.1; 127.1}

    “My Father hath so loved you, that He even loves Me more for giving My life to redeem you. In becoming your substitute and surety, by surrendering My life, by taking your liabilities, your transgressions, I am endeared to My Father; for by My sacrifice, His will is fulfilled, His law vindicated, and God can be just, and yet justify Him who believes in Jesus.”{ST November 28, 1892, par. 1}

    These manifestations of self-sacrificial are not “strangely out of place” within the headship/submission paradigm rather they fit perfectly!

    The last thing I would like to say is that “distorted views of God” occur for many reasons. They happen when people obscure the structure or functional roles within the Godhead. Lucifer is the originator of this and launched an angelic egalitarian agenda on the basis of it (see my linked document for proof of this). Distorted views of God also occur when people seek to usurp Divine authority and alter His requirements instead of understanding that humans (even Divinely ordained ones like the apostle Peter) only hold derived authority that cannot alter God’s commandments (this is the error of both the Pharisees and the papacy). Finally they also occur when people think that “love” means that there is no law (which includes submission – See 1 Cor 14:34) or authoritative roles in God’s government (we see this manifest in our church in a certain theory of atonement which denies that God actively punishes the wicked, I believe we see it also in society’s obscuring of gender roles in the bed, home and even in the church’s obscuring of gender roles. Finally it’s seen even in universalism which teaches that because God is love ultimately everyone will be saved).

    So at the end of the day love and power go hand in hand. Both are revelations of who God is! Yet with God love actually IS power! It is the motivator for every being, whether it is the Son who submits to the Father or the angels who submit to the Son, the faithful pastor who submits to the Son, the Spirit-filled church members who submit to the faithful overseer, the loyal wife who submits to the godly husband, or the loving children who obey their parents. Each link in the chain is motivated by love for the God who established and placed them in the various roles and this same God is the One who gave up His only Son to enable people to return to loyalty. Please consider these things brother

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